ART / That way madness lies: 'Everyone is an artist,' Joseph Beuys famously declared, but perhaps he should have added that not everyone should necessarily exhibit their work. Andrew Graham-Dixon on the 'BT New Contemporaries', Manchester

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The Independent Culture
STUART MORGAN, one of the three selectors responsible for choosing this year's 'New Contemporaries', makes it clear that they have had to be rather more rigorous than they would have liked. 'We should have said yes to them all,' he writes in the catalogue, 'the man in Brighton who filmed his birthday party; the table with turnips rammed through it; the prolonged video close-up of the artist's vagina; the urinal carved out of soap . . .' As it is, they felt compelled to restrict the show only to works of demonstrable, proven quality.

Room had to be found for Chris Ofili's large abstract paintings plastered with real elephant turds, and for Simon Starling's photograph of an obscure object described by its title as the blue plaster cast of the bottom teeth of Frank Gilsen made on the 5th of May 1992 and found on the 10th May 1992 in the grounds of the Museum Hans Ester, Krefeld. It would have been nice to include one or two eccentricities just for the hell of it - but standards have to be kept up, after all.

The exhibition was devised to introduce the best work by the most promising young British artists. It was called 'Young Contemporaries' and it was opened for the first time in 1947 by the Queen (now the Queen Mother) who stayed to have a look round and was so impressed or so polite that she bought two paintings. Times change. Hard, really, to imagine her buying anything from the 'BT New Contemporaries 1993' which opened on Saturday at the Cornerhouse in Manchester. Certainly not Stuart Cumberland's Swearing, a work for video which is reasonably well described by its title. Jump-cuts of art students' faces appears on screen, each held just long enough to allow for the delivery of a single, apparently spontaneously selected swear-word.

It is difficult to say which single work, on the evidence of this show, might best be said to characterise New British Art. Swearing is a reasonable candidate, since it is (perhaps intentionally) an incisive description of the predicament of the modern British art student: encouraged to shock, instructed to transgress, but furnished with a limited vocabulary. It also suggests that spontaneous self-expression, the goal of most contemporary art education, is not as liberating as it is said to be: when people spontaneously express themselves, they often just reveal how sadly similar they are to each other.

This may also be the point of Gillian Wearing's genuinely touching sequence of photographs, exhibited under the collective title Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say. The artist's approach is simple. She accosts passers-by, gives each a blank placard and a magic marker, invites them to write down their thought for the day and then takes a photograph of them holding it up. A batty-looking nerd wants people to be aware that 'Everything is connected in life, the point is to know it and understand it'. A baffled older gentleman squints into the sun, holding up a sign that says 'What is it' (hard to say whether this is an involuntary expression of existential angst or merely incomprehension of the peculiar exercise which a strange young woman is putting him through). A lady in a quilted jacket confesses that 'I really love Regents Park', while a young man in a smart suit lets us in on the fact that 'I'm desperate'.

According to Stuart Morgan, Wearing's work symbolises the healthy libertarianism of the modern British art school and its products. Like the exhibition of which it forms a part, he argues, it is 'a celebration of free speech'. But to admire Wearing's pictures for that reason is to pay insufficient attention to their ironies: this is art about the pitfalls and inadequacies of mere self-expression, art that reveals how crass and embarrassing and cliched people can be when they speak their minds. And that makes it, like Cumberland's Swearing, something of a Trojan horse in an exhibition that wants to celebrate expressive freedom. The people in Wearing's photographs might be seen as parodies of the modern artist, and the experience of walking past a line of her pictures is remarkably similar to the experience of visiting any reasonably large exhibition of contemporary art such as this one. Concerns, sometimes bizarrely singular, more often extremely familiar, are aired. Confessions are made. The viewer can respond sympathetically (Thank you for sharing that with me) or otherwise (I wish you hadn't) but is likely to be worn out by the relentlessness of all that self-expression.

'Everyone is an artist,' Joseph Beuys famously declared, but perhaps he should have added that not everyone should necessarily exhibit their work. This show is interesting because it so vividly demonstrates what art has become, in the late 20th century, when so many people are taught to think of themselves as artists without being given much in the way of other instruction. An enormous quantity of modern works of art amount to little more than mild bleeps and buzzes of self-consciousness, fears or fantasies embodied in objects or actions, images or texts, and dreamily shared with an audience that is relied upon rather too heavily to take an interest in them.

Calculated oddities abound. Andrew Bannister's contribution consists of a fat wax candle encircled by a leather belt, lying on the floor. Bernadette Bentley furnishes an object that looks like a very large fur-covered kidney bean with udders. Ian Pratt has made a mock picnic hamper filled with peculiar implements, complete with elaborate instructions for use: the result, were those instructions to be followed, would be a meal shared by a man and a woman on their hands and knees, strapped together, only one able to eat at any given moment due to the nature of the apparatus. These are all exercises in a brand of neo-Surrealism that seems extremely popular with today's artists: easy to execute, because done with words or simple arrangements of objects, and seductively weird. But the message of the work - we are artists: we are pretty kinky people, we think pretty kinky thoughts - also begs a question.

Why should anyone care? Presumably such objects are meant to be 'disturbing' (someone should write a history of that adjective's application to works of art: once derogatory, now used to praise) but the trouble is that so much would-be disturbing art has been made that it is much harder to shock, now, than it once was. Also, the old justifications for making art that set out to shock - to challenge bourgeois prejudices, say, or to redefine the parameters of art - now seem somewhat dated. Bourgeois prejudices have been challenged to death, and as for the parameters of art - well, there really aren't any any more.

The rhetoric that accompanies the exhibition is as revealing, in many ways, as the exhibition itself. Stuart Morgan's catalogue essay offers a fascinating insight into the mentality of the right-on art educator, critic and exhibition organiser. The theory behind the selection, as he puts it, goes something like this. It is the noble task of the modern artist to dissent, to explore the territories of mental and emotional strangeness that are closed off to ordinary mortals. He goes on to argue, with some originality, that Dennis Nilsen is an appropriate hero for the artists of our times: 'an artist who drew the men he murdered; a planner who redesigned his life to suit the dictates of his heart'. This macabre effusion suggests that in an age when the measure of good art is seen to be the level of strangeness and uniqueness of the sensibility that it reveals, the best art will be made by the maddest people. There is nothing new about this: it is really just an extreme statement of the preconception implicit in the 20th century's mythologisation of Van Gogh as an inspired lunatic. But Morgan's attitudes, taken to their logical conclusion, are more than slightly disturbing (in the bad, rather than the good sense). They suggest that his ideal artist would be so deranged that he would have become entirely unable to distinguish between art and life. Making work which sought, as modern artspeak might put it, to investigate human mortality and related issues, he might find it appropriate to murder people, boil their remains and flush them down the lavatory. Killing might become art. (Hey, does that bother you? You're so conventional.) When art becomes, merely, free self-expression ('We should have said yes to them all') then perhaps Morgan is right and the most impressive works of art become those made by the clinically insane, those who do not even realise that what they are doing counts as art until the enlightened art critic turns up on the scene to define it as such. Perhaps the modern artist should, indeed, aspire to the condition of Dennis Nilsen. But it's possible that the theory might be flawed in some way.

(Photographs omitted)